Worried About Underwater Creatures, Scientists Want To Hush The Noisy Oceans

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In this 2007 file photo, the Coast Guard Cutter Pike is seen in the background as a humpback whale surfaces in the Port of Sacramento. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
In this 2007 file photo, the Coast Guard Cutter Pike is seen in the background as a humpback whale surfaces in the Port of Sacramento. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

You might think that the ocean — deep down in the ocean — is a quiet, serene place. Maybe even soundless, other than calls from animals like the great blue whale and occasional underwater earthquakes.

But oceans have actually become very loud due to man-made noise from oil rigs, sonar and ship propellers. And scientists are worried that all that added noise is hurting marine life.

So they're planning a massive experiment to quiet the ocean and study what kind of impact that quieting has. It's called the “International Quiet Ocean Experiment" (PDF).

WBUR All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke about this project with Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University in New York and an adjunct faculty member at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Sacha Pfeiffer: Tell us about this experiment you're involved in, because the idea of trying to quiet the entire ocean, to eliminate all man-made sounds all at once, seems like an impossible task.

Jesse Ausubel: That's the most extreme vision of it and I hope we can do something close to it. Until now, almost all the studies of sounds in the ocean have involved adding noise in the ocean, so I ring a gong under the sea and then listen and look for the effects.

What we'd like to do in the Quiet Ocean Experiment is have one year, an international year of the quiet ocean, in which we would observe incredibly closely and we would do experiments overwhelmingly by removing, rather than adding, sound. If we could convince some ships to slow down or stop for a few hours, if we could convince the oil and gas industry to have experimental periods when they refrain from doing seismic tests, then we could contrast the conditions. Finally, we would love to have a period of perhaps just six or eight hours one day when we would try to have as little human addition of noise as possible and really, really observe everything that we possibly can.

So you would need all these oil rigs, shipping vessels, military operations to simultaneously go quiet over an extended period of time?

Sound travels very fast in the ocean; sound can cross an ocean basin in six hours, say. So we don't need to quiet for a very long time. It would be completely unrealistic to expect all the activities in the oceans to stop for 24 or 48 hours. But it may be possible to persuade people just for four, six or eight hours to substantially reduce if not cease their operations altogether. The world could use a day of peace with the ocean. We do an awful lot in the oceans that, if we were living down there, we might like a little bit of a rest.

And what is the concern about the impact this could have on marine life, other than just making it maybe a less comfortable place to live?

The evidence has been growing about effects on mammals. Sounds of various kinds may make whales that are diving deep surface more quickly than they otherwise would or safely can, in the same way that scuba divers might be harmed. Additions of sound by humanity may affect the schooling behavior of animals or the mating behavior or animals or their ability to hunt — and a range of animals. They could be affecting seals, they could be affecting manatees and dugongs, they could be affecting penguins and diving birds or tuna and reef fish like damsel fish, or even turtles.

We have part of an audio montage of underwater sounds in Massachusetts Bay. This was put together by scientists at Cornell University. I want to listen to part of that with you (audio montage plays). That high-pitched sound is navy sonar. Those two blasts are the sound of an air gun used in oil exploration. And that is a tanker, which takes hours to pass through the bay. So there's a lot of concern about what some scientists call "acoustic smog," particularly off the coast of Massachusetts. How concerned are you about this so-called acoustic smog?

Acoustic smog is a concern. There are real chances to reduce the pollution of the oceans by noise. There are quieter ship engines, new kinds of propulsion, ways to insulate activities on the sea floor that make noise. So in the same way that we have greatly reduced air pollution, we can do a lot.

And if you could quiet the oceans, what would we hear? Would it be crab claws snapping and waves breaking and whales singing? What would it sound like?

We'd certainly hear the animals. The fish called croakers croak and snapping shrimp snap and dolphins make clicks. Also the rain falling on the sea surface if it's raining. The waves breaking. The oceans have their natural noise, and that's what we would hear.

This article was originally published on December 20, 2012.

This program aired on December 20, 2012.

Headshot of Sacha Pfeiffer

Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.


Headshot of Lynn Jolicoeur

Lynn Jolicoeur Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.



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